Category Archives: Thinking about feeling

In the country of can’t

I’m used to being able to push through. I’m stubborn, determined and I have a lot of willpower, normally. So when anxiety and depression get their teeth in me, I push back. When fatigue floods my body, I keep moving. When my pain levels are high, I still keep going.  Sometimes I’ve burned out and had to take a few days off. Last year I discovered that this makes me ‘high functioning’ and doesn’t mean that what I’m experiencing is less serious than it is for someone who could not keep going in face of it.

Finding I can’t do things is a whole new issue. Staring blankly at screens when I can’t gather my thoughts to write blog content, or even emails. Unable to sleep from the anxiety that comes with having to get up the next day and work. Unable to move. Finding getting up from the sofa to pee requires all the willpower I can muster. It turns out I am not a limitless being able to manifest my every intention – not that I ever really thought that was true. I am an entirely finite mammal and I am out of resources. It’s a scary place to be, but also fascinating because I’ve never been here before.

For the first time in my life, I have no options of saying ‘yes’ a lot of the time. I am obliged to say no, and to retreat to the sofa, and ask for support.  It’s a strange sort of experience, I don’t like the powerlessness, but I know I won’t get past this unless I surrender to it and let myself heal. I’ve had to have a few conversations about what I can’t do – most of the people I’m dealing with are being brilliant. And where people aren’t able to come through for me…. All I can do is let go and accept because I’m out of options.  I suspect this is going to have interesting impacts on some of my relationships.

Concentrating to write is hard today, but, I’ve changed how I do blog content so that it isn’t time pressured. It’s ok if this takes me twice as long as it used to. Accepting my limitations and working within them is key at the moment. And somehow, from this place of mostly can’t, I have to figure out how to take better care of myself. I have to work out what will help me recover, and how to keep limping onwards in the meantime. I can’t recommend starting from here.

Slowly, gently, putting down what I can, letting go of what I can, trusting people to get my back, and resting as much as I can are my main tactics right now. I think I can get a proper week off at the start of February, and I think that will help a lot. Onwards, lurching awkwardly, but onwards…


Mental Health Observations

I know why I’m in this mess, and there are two key strands. Strand 1 is my history, and the traumas and stresses in it. I did not get ill on my own. Strand 2 is that there has never really been a time when getting well and looking after me seemed like the most important thing. Strand 2 is very much a consequence of strand 1.

Being told I make a fuss is a whole-life issue. As a child I learned I had a low pain threshold, and over-reacted. Accusations of attention seeking, melodrama and emotional manipulation have happened repeatedly. So, my first response to distress is actually to hide it, partly because I’m afraid I really am doing all of those things, and partly because when I’m in distress, the last thing I need is to be accused of making a fuss for attention or being unreasonable. I’ve become the first person to diminish my own distress and I am easily persuaded that anything and everything is more important than whatever I happen to be feeling.

It doesn’t help that my work situation makes it hard to take time off. It doesn’t help that the publishing industry is a mess and it is very hard for anyone to make any money doing this – the stats are out there, I’ve talked about it in other posts. It doesn’t help that most outfits only want a few hours here and there of marketing and social media work so I have had to do lots of jobs to make ends meet, which takes far more energy than doing one job for the same hours because there’s so much more information to keep track of. At one point a few years ago I was doing 7 different jobs. It was hell and it still wasn’t enough to get close to an average wage.

I don’t get enough time off, or rest, or restorative stuff. I’ve known this for some time. The difficulty is turning that knowledge into action. Can I persuade myself that being well is more important than anything else that comes along? Can I hold boundaries when other people want more from me than I can afford to give? Can I deal with the voices in my head that yell ‘you are being emotionally abusive’ if I express distress or need? I don’t know. It’s a hard fight, and it’s a fight I have to take on when I’m at my most exhausted, currently. In many ways, accepting that everything and everyone else is more important than my mental health has always seemed like the easier, safer choice. In some contexts, that has definitely been true.

I’ve got to the point where not being able to push through is a real issue. I can’t keep going by will alone, because I’m exhausted. I don’t have resources to deploy, no matter how important situations seem. I’m struggling to work, and if this gets much worse, working is going to get ever more difficult. I am running out of options, and trying to persuade myself that this is not me making a fuss, or being lazy, or not trying hard enough. Either I get on top of this, or I hit the point where I really can’t get out of bed, and I do not think that point is so very far away.

What I’m hanging on to right now is a very powerful instruction to survive. It’s something to hold as a shield between me and all the things that push the other way. It might be enough to enable me to turn things around. It may not be melodramatic to say this is at a stage where ‘not survive’ is a potential outcome otherwise.


Beyond Burnout

At the weekend it dawned on me that I couldn’t imagine anything good. I couldn’t think of anything restorative that I wanted to do, or that might make me feel better. Nor could I imagine ever feeling good or happy again. I can’t carry on like this.

I’m not even sure when I burned out this time, except that it was months ago. Instead of resting and recovering – my normal burnout response- I kept slogging on. There were reasons and I know what they were. I’ve never been to the land beyond burnout before, but it is not a pretty place. There’s very little aside from distress that I can actually feel and I’m stumbling around like some kind of half dead zombie thing, and have been for a while.

This is not a place from which it is easy to plan an escape. I have no idea what would make me feel better, so I’m going for the most reliable responses to mental health setbacks – more time outside and more rest. My energy levels are very low and have been so for months. Aside from weekends, I’ve only had a couple of days off this year because I couldn’t get on top of things. So I’m going to push myself over the next couple of days so that I can have some days off, and maybe some rest will help me plan things a bit.

Everything feels like pushing a rock up a hill. The hill is steep. My boots are made of lead. The rock is angry and hates me. There’s no joy in anything, and I am perpetually exhausted, and it is pretty obvious at this point that pushing the angry rock is not getting me anywhere better. Helpfully there is a guest blog coming up and I’ve planned some smaller blogs, so, this continues as does the Hopeless Maine blog – thanks to contributions from others. I’m going to take a break from social media, and from news, and I’m going to try not to feel totally responsible for looking after other people. So if I am quiet other places, this will be why.


Worth and love

Talking with a friend last week, it was pointed out to me that many people do not consider themselves worthy of love. It is something I’ve struggled with, and for me it shows up around wanting things I think I can’t have and explaining why people haven’t treated me very well in the past. How this plays out is likely to be highly individual, based on what I’ve seen of other people.

For some people it means mistrust – if you don’t think you’re loveable, it is hard to trust that when people say they love you, they aren’t just after something. Anyone who has been manipulated in this way may doubt their own loveableness, and be wary of other people’s motives.

If you’ve had your worth tied to achievement, then your loveableness depends on what you can do. That’s exhausting, and demoralising. Mistakes and failures are incredibly threatening when your emotional security depends on feeling like you get everything right all the time.

For anyone who has grown up in an emotionally insecure environment, it’s like trying to re-grow a missing limb. We either learn to feel emotionally secure early on, or we don’t. For the person who has that fundamental experience of being loved and wanted, there’s some resilience available in face of other challenges life may create. For the person who was never sure they were wanted, never confident of an unconditional place in the world, all other challenges to worth are harder to meet.

No one can go back and re-do their formative experiences. However, we can take care of each other. We can look out for people who struggle around matters of love, worth and friendship, and look out for them. And of course it’s hard and scary if you’re both people with issues around love and worth because to say ‘I love you’ to a person is to open up all those fears about what your own unloveableness will mean. Of course it is harder for two people with these issues because it is so easy to read the other person’s wounding as a consequence of your not deserving to be loved.

When you don’t feel secure in your own self worth, it is harder to be vulnerable with someone. Harder to trust and to open your heart. But sometimes, if you can say ‘some people don’t feel worthy of love’ then you might get something back – even if that too is a bit indirect. Like a blog post.


Thinking about feeling

If you just give your emotions the steering wheel every time they surface, you’ll be at their mercy. You may even be confused by your own responses to things and you will likely feel out of control. It can seem like our immediate emotional reactions are the most authentic ones, but, I don’t think this is true.

Why we feel as we do is a complicated mix of things. Our personal histories are in there, and so are the stories our families tell, or the stories we tell about them. Our culture is in there, our class background, educational experiences, previous relationships… and much of this is simply stuff that happened to us, it isn’t who we are.

If, for example you’ve grown up being told that being queer is disgusting and a choice, you may well not feel good about any queer feelings you have, and you may feel that you should be able to make yourself be not-queer. This way lies a great deal of pain. Finding your authentic self means getting rid of the things you’ve been taught to feel.

When you think about your feelings it becomes possible to question where they come from. Are they really yours? Is this what you’ve been taught to think and feel? For anyone unpicking trauma or trying to deal with depression, anxiety, abuse legacies, ancestral wounding and the like, these questions open the door to changing things. Once you know where a feeling comes from you can start to change your relationship with it.

This is a slow, often arduous process. Things you’ve been taught to feel from an early age aren’t easily pulled out of you, but it can be done. Once you start to loosen their grip, there is more room to find out what your own feelings might be. When you’ve found your own feelings are, life gets easier, there’s more room. It is exhausting and demoralising fighting yourself because what you’ve been taught to feel isn’t right for you. It’s not an unusual experience for people coming out of religious backgrounds they found oppressive and into Paganism.

Powerful emotions are persuasive. They seem like they must be authentic, but we can be trained to feel in certain ways, and that training can be undone and sometimes needs to be.


Seeking Joy

For wellbeing, we need joy. We need things in our lives that uplift, inspire and comfort us. Lockdown really isn’t helping with that – the loss of live music and places to dance has hit me hard. I miss the steampunk evens and the people I only see there. There are people it is distressing not to be able to hug. Joy is really important, and knowing what gives you joy is essential so that you can invest in it.

Depression strips the joy out of everything. It takes away the colours and flavours, and makes life seem thin, hollow and grim, even when it isn’t. If joy is in short supply, depression will leave you with very little.

It is possible to find happiness in very small things. This is usually something I’m really good at. The light on the trees outside the window. The brief appearance of a wild bird. A joke on social media. I practice gratitude and I make the best of what I have, and that helps. It is good to look for the best in things. However, these small joys are crumbs at best. If you have a life that is full of wild beauty and small joys then those many crumbs can start to look a lot like cake. If you don’t, then the diet of crumbs may not be enough.

What I crave most, and have always wanted most, are intense interactions with other people. Thinking and feeling, loving, laughing, co-pondering, imagining, sharing stories, creating together. I’m good at doing that sort of thing online, but I need enough of it in person to sustain me, and lockdown makes that really hard.

How many people live without access to beauty? How many people have little or no comfort in their lives, and no time or money for things that would genuinely feel good? How much depression is caused by the lack of joy and by a society that pushes consumerism at the expense of health and wellbeing? How many people have little or no access to green spaces in their daily lives? How many lives are lived without enough warmth, kindness and tenderness? What if the availability of joy was a collective concern, not just something for those who can afford to buy opportunities?


Hypervigilance, continued

After my first and rather speculative blog about hypervigilance in the body, I immediately started running into information about this. Apparently it is a thing, and there is proper research out there, and poking about with a search engine can lead you to articles and information. Hypervigilance is not simply a condition of the mind. I’m finding that just knowing this has changed how I feel about it.

I know from experience that pushing and training my mind is an option I have. I can be fairly brutal with my head in terms of what I demand of myself. Most of my coping mechanisms depend on making my brain deal with things. I know it is much harder to push myself emotionally that way. It doesn’t work at all with my body. I can force my body to ignore pain and distress, but they don’t go away. I’m increasingly suspicious that forcing my brain doesn’t really solve anything, it just moves the problems around, but that’s a post for another day.

If the hypervigilance is in my body, then I will have to work on calming my body, not forcing it to deal with things. If I want to be better. There are often issues for me around the work involved with being better, the inconvenience it might cause, and what I might have to ask of other people.

I’ve also been talking recently (in this post) about what soothes and comforts my body in the first place – and not much does. Putting the two together has at least given me the mechanics for why I can only nap with a cat. That I have issues with light is a hypervigilance thing. I don’t sleep well with lights on. But, cats calm me, and the presence of a cat can be more powerful than the impact of light.

I think one of the missing pieces in this puzzle may well be kindness. Being kind to me has never seemed like a priority. I push through fear, and pain and difficulty routinely. Feelings of safety, comfort, relaxation, release, tranquillity and ease have never been much of a priority. I suspect that part of why my body is always tensed for the next threat is that I don’t give it much time off, or recovery time, nor do I do anything much restorative after difficult experiences. That in turn depends on stories about what I should be able to do, what’s normal, what’s a reasonable expectation, and that I was probably just making a fuss in the first place.

I’m not currently sure what to do with any of this. I find it useful having explanations for what’s going on. Whether the answer is simply to accept this is how things are for me, or to look at what it would take to make changes, I am unsure.


What is courage?

Most often, courage and bravery are both defined in terms of overcoming fear. Apparently it isn’t courage if you weren’t afraid in the first place. It may be heroic idiocy, or naivety, impulsiveness or not thinking it through. I feel like we’re missing something here. I feel like reducing courage to what we do in the face of fear is less than helpful and my totally unsubstantiated personal gnosis is that this is not what ideas of courage meant to our Celtic ancestors. Also, they will have had a totally different language for all of this.

What if fear isn’t the most important thing? What if you can look at the dangers, weight them sensibly, but also not be overwhelmed by them. What if the dangers don’t tend to seem like the most important factors? What if courage, as a quality and as a virtue could have something joyful about it? An enthusiastic, life embracing, challenge meeting sort of feeling that leads a person to live life boldly, bring the best of what they have and do things as well as is possible. What if courage is the virtue of being really invested in how you do something and not overly focused on what you think the outcome will be? On the grounds that living well, with honour and authenticity will always be the right direction to go in, even if it doesn’t seem expedient right now.

Courage, thought about this way becomes the opposite of apathy. The odds don’t matter so much, the risks don’t matter so much, the real question is how much passionate integrity and wholeheartedness you can bring. It becomes a state of being, not a reaction to scary stuff.

At the moment, this is a largely aspirational line of thought for me. I’ve done a lot of trying to be brave in face of things that terrify me. It’s exhausting, and I don’t much like how it feels. I want to shift my relationship with the rest of reality, and I want to re-imagine myself and these are some of the terms on which I’m doing that at the moment.


Processing Emotions

When we deal with emotions at the time of the experience that prompts them, it all makes a fair amount of sense. We grieve the dead, and other heartbreaking losses. We work through the fear in the aftermath of whatever scared us. We get angry and protect ourselves from threats. These feelings seldom do anything that complicated to a person.

However, if you don’t have the time, resources, space or safety to deal with emotions at the time, this gets complicated. It is an issue for people who have suffered bullying and abuse. It is often an issue for people who have dealt with situations that were stressful over extended periods. When you have to hold together and keep going, the feelings you didn’t have time to process don’t really go away.

Eventually, they come back. When they come back, there’s no context to help you make sense of them. It isn’t always obvious what the original source was. So there you are, sobbing inexplicably, or full of rage but with nothing to rage at, and it is deeply confusing. This is hard stuff to deal with.

One possible way of dealing with it is to seek fiction that allows a context for the feelings. A film you can cry over, a story you can get angry about. It gives your body chance to work the emotions through in a way that makes some kind of sense. Sometimes, along the way, the original source becomes obvious and you find you’re crying for someone who died years ago, or for that summer when you had to be strong and do all the things and there wasn’t time to deal with how afraid you really were…

Emotions can be strange things to deal with, they seem to have their own rules and ways of manifesting, and there is only so long you can deny them for before they will rip through you and find a way to manifest. Best to deal with them when they come up, but if that hasn’t been possible, be patient with yourself and try to be kind as they come through in all their chaos.


The quest for dopamine

Every time I go a round with mental health difficulties, the question of whether I should be on meds comes up. What I really want to do is fix my underlying issues and have the space to do that. For me, seeking a chemical intervention does not feel like doing something that would help me, it feels like being more convenient to everyone else, and that’s part of my fundamental problems in the first place.

I don’t have a great relationship with my own body chemistry. However, if I do the right things around diet and exercise, if there are cat snuggles and I get enough rest, I can make most of it work. I put a fair amount of effort into this sort of thing. However, having poked around online to learn more about what different chemicals do in the brain, I realise that dopamine may be a life-long issue for me. I don’t really experience a feeling of reward. Something happens around 20+ mile walks but I can’t do those much of the time. Still, it means I know I am capable of feeling achievement and reward, so it’s there, I just have to make it happen.

It doesn’t matter what I do or how well I do it – most of the time I feel no sense of achievement. All I can see is where I went wrong, wasn’t good enough, could have been faster, better etc. etc. I work hard, and I get very tired and I mostly just feel useless. This, clearly could be better. I have a pretty good idea how I got like this, and I certainly didn’t do it all by myself. But, how to get out of it?

I’ve got two approaches at the moment. One is to challenge the story that is always running in the background – this is easy, anyone could do it, and most people would do it faster and better than you, what you do isn’t really good enough, you’re barely keeping up when you do manage things… it’s hard to feel any sense of achievement with a background story that reiterates that you’re always falling short anyway. I need to examine my expectations and watch my thoughts around this and pull out the stuff that other people have put in my head.

I need to factor in how hard things are – how much work I’ve done, how ill I’ve been, how fast I really went. Because this does actually matter and I need to measure achievement against my own effort, not against the imaginary average person who is about ten million times better at everything than I am. I’m doing this by paying more attention to my own effort, acknowledging my own challenges, and checking in with people I trust about what they think is normal. It will be a process.

At the end of it, I have no idea if I will be better able to experience feelings of reward and achievement, but I’ll certainly spend less time tripping myself up, and I can pull some of the toxic historical stuff out of my head, at the very least.